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Abhinavagupta's Conception of Humor (h‚sya) - Sunthar [1983]

These are the chapters from my Ph.D. thesis in Sanskrit and Philosophy, Banaras Hindu University (BHU). I've also posted the reviews of the examiners. The original intention behind my resettling in Benares was to study Indian philosophy, particularly the Ved‚nta, in its original Sanskrit texts. Hence, my choice of Indian (and Western) Philosophy, Sanskrit and English Literature for my B.A. The decision to do my M.A. in Sanskrit Literature (along with philosophical texts in the original) was fueled by the desire to master the intricacies and nuances of the language. Ever since I stumbled on Sh‚ntarasa and Abhinavagupta's Philosophy of Aesthetics (Masson & Patwardhan), it became clear that my Ph.D. research would be focused on the meta-psychology of Rasa.

While in Poona completing my German studies, I chanced upon a rambling lecture by Rajneesh on the relation between "The Aesthetic and the Mystical Experience" that held me spellbound. I subsequently learnt that he was actually pegging his own insights onto a free English translation of the VijŮ‚na-Bhairava Tantra, a discovery that led me to the study of 'Kashmir Shaivism'. I re-discovered a profound mystic and philosopher in Abhinavagupta, whom I had till then known primarily as a theorist on aesthetics albeit in relation to spiritual emancipation (sh‚nta-rasa).  In relation to my thesis, this translated into a reconsideration of his rasa-theory in the light of the Tantric transmutation of not just the human emotions but also of their biological underpinnings. From the late 70s, I began reading the original Trika texts with ¬ch‚rya Rameshwar Jha, a life-long ascetic though householder Vedantin (Sanskrit grammarian and Ny‚ya logician), who had subsequently embraced Abhinava's understanding of (the supreme) reality. Jhaji was subsequently honored by BHU, during the same convocation where I was officially awarded my Ph.D., with the title 'Mah‚mahop‚dhy‚ya' alongside other luminaries such as Mother Teresa, Ravi Shankar and M.S. Subbulakshmi.

The original plan was for a thesis on the "Metapsychology of Rasa" covering all the nine dramatic emotions from an aesthetic, psychological and spiritual perspective. With the burgeoning materials and the multiplicity of sources, the scope became increasingly restricted to love (shrng‚ra), pathos (karuna),  tranquility (sh‚nta), and humor (h‚sya). The latter was included only because I found in Gurdjieff's theory of laughter a penetrating insight for clarifying Abhinava's own sweeping statements on the nature of h‚sya. My encounter with Kuiper's Varuna and VidŻshaka suddenly thrust the (ritual) clown into the limelight leaving little room in my thesis for any other sentiment but humor (and its semblance). This opened the floodgates for incorporating my recent and ongoing attempt to come to terms with the challenge posed by (especially French) anthropology to the interpretation of Hindu tradition. The perceptive reader will recognize, everywhere in the thesis, the back-and-forth of a three-way dialogue between Abhinavagupta's treatment of the emotions, the proliferating discourse of modern scientia, and myself as a creative mediator.

Examiners reports:

Prof. Kalidas Bhattacharya (Santiniketan University)

Son of the renowned neo-Ved‚nta philosopher, Kalicharan (K. C.) Bhattacharya, Kalidas Bhattacharya, a philosopher in his own right,  was included as an Indian examiner at the insistence of my supervisor A.K. Chatterjee. Given my transgressive approach to Hindu tradition, I expected the worst from this widely respected scholar with whom I never had any direct contact, neither before nor after the award of the doctorate. This may have well been the last thesis he examined before his demise shortly thereafter. His report was not only the most unreserved in endorsing the thesis, it was also the earliest to be turned it to the University. I probably owe him my subsequent University Grants Commission Research Associateship.

Prof. A.K. Chatterjee (Dept. of Philosophy, Banaras Hindu University)

My original supervisor was the Ved‚nta scholar, Ramakant (R. K. ) Tripathi, who retired well before my completion of the thesis. Ashok Kumar Chatterjee, generally considered the brightest among the students of the neo-Ved‚ntin M‚dhyamika scholar, T.R.V. Murthi, specialized in VijŮ‚nav‚da Buddhism.

Prof. F.B.J. Kuiper (Kern Institute, Leiden University)

I owe my initiation into the mysteries of Vedic religion to F.B.J. Kuiper, whose magnum opus on Varuna and VidŻshaka I first discovered through Charles Malamoud,  and whose friendly mentorship in interpreting Indian mythology was facilitated by our common friend, John Irwin, of (pre-) Ashokan pillar fame. An enthusiastic convert, I subsequently helped clear the publication of his Ancient Indian Cosmogony  with Vikas Press (New Delhi). We were engaged in a long and fruitful correspondence (by snail mail!) even as I was preparing my Ph.D. thesis. Though not selected from the original list of proposed examiners deemed competent to judge my thesis, the thesis was eventually sent to him because of delays in receiving the final report (hence the brevity of Kuiper's report). As for the cited relevant correspondence, I've resorted to the artifice of using the format of an email exchange between Benares and Leiden for the hand-written/typed letters. Kuiper was being seriously considered for an honorary D.Litt. degree by BHU for World Sanskrit Conference, but was unable to come in person for the award (which went instead to Paul Thieme). He is one of those rare Indologists with a mastery of Indo-European linguists, Sanskrit, Dravidian and aboriginal (Munda, etc.) languages.

Prof. Maria Christopher Byrski (Oriental Institute, Warsaw University)

Byrski, a specialist of (both classical, folk and contemporary) Indian theater, hails from a Polish family intimately involved with practical theater. He had lived and studied in Benares (where he learned English) well before my domicile there. We met for the first time during the World Sanskrit Conference at BHU, at a time when he was the Solidarity representative at his faculty in the Univ. of Warszawa. Though the report arrived well after I had been awarded the Ph.D., it is the most detailed chapter-by-chapter review, whose lessons I have largely absorbed. Byrski was subsequently appointed Polish ambassador to India.

Viva Voce report (Dept. of Philosophy, Banaras Hindu University)

This report was in striking contrast to the pre-submission oral focused on my thesis abstract above: the first thing that seems to have popped the eyes of our new Head of Dept. was my 'scandalous' comparison (let alone assimilation...) of the sacrosanct Ganesha with the clown of the Sanskrit theater. The Benares Hindu University would become the laughing stock of the world, he affirmed, when the newspapers report that someone had thought fit to submit a thesis on a subject so un-serious as h‚sya (humor). The rest of the departmental committee eventually  bullied him into submission with the pragmatic observation it didn't make sense to object to the title of a thesis after it had already been completely written. If our humorless neo-Vedantins would stoop to read the Puranic mythology, they'd see that even the moon couldn't restrain himself from laughing at the elephantine Ganesha riding on his weenie mouse...for which disrespect the lord of the night duly suffers every month from consumption.

Personal commendation from the Vice-Chancellor, Banaras Hindu University


The Problem Defining Humor - incorporating the behavioral model within personal knowledge

Paving the ground for Abhinava's conception of humor with a constructive critique of empiricist approaches also served to exorcize the ghost of my love-affair with behaviorist and social psychology. The religious passion that my teenage years channeled into science (particularly abstract physics, evolution and genetics) converged into the question "Who am I" which initially got translated into an infatuation with experimental psychology on which I started collecting an eclectic library in Kuala Lumpur. My academic ambitions were diverted into a desire to study the subject at a British University. However, in the course of the two years of science curricula between taking my Ordinary (O-level) and Advanced (A-level) Cambridge Exams, I decided it would take me too many lives waiting for psychology to evolve from the confusion of rats in mazes to some real insights into the human psyche that would give me a workable framework to live by. Having been exposed, in the meantime, to Swami Vivekananda's popularization of Yoga (and Ved‚nta) and becoming increasingly disillusioned with the amorality of modern science, I finally decided to make a clean break by moving to India in early 1972 to study the introspective methods of traditional 'psychology'. By the time I began this thesis, it seemed that the experience of rasa would offer the best bridge.

Gurdjieff's Theory of Laughter

Acknowledging my spiritual debt to Gurdjieff, who had kept me alive until I discovered Abhinavagupta, has served two complementary purposes: to facilitate the translation of Trika techniques for the expansion of consciousness onto a 'materialist' idiom more consonant with the everyday life of modern man, and to render Indian philosophical tradition(s) and cultural sensibility more accessible to those struggling to escape the ubiquitous prison of a 'triumphant' materialism. Carrying the presuppositions of behaviorism well beyond the academic pretense of the laboratory into the existential reality of even the most 'cultured' of humankind (to the point of rejecting the notion of self), clears the ground for a better appreciation of traditional cultures that were formulated around the experiences of those privileged beings who had somehow reversed the 'behavioral circuit.' Gurdjieff told P.D. Ouspensky, who had traveled in vain through India In Search of the Miraculous, that the only thing he'd find there were 'philosophical' schools, which is what the 'Doctrine of Recognition' (Pratyabhijق) might have remained had he not prepared me with his teachings such as 'self-remembrance.'

Laughter and Bisociation

"I would like to challenge one important aspect of [Sunthar's]  approach, not because I consider it to be invalid but because it impresses me as construed upon, so to speak, external premises. This is so because the general tendency of [Sunthar's] argument seem to be to confirm in terms of modern Western psychology all what Indian aestheticians and in particular Abhinavagupta propounded. Commendable as the attempt is, it does not make the inner coherence of the Indian cultural system without calling for the help of external props (i.e., Gurdjieff’s theory, for instance) its sole starting point. The corresponding theories from outside the indigenous system should be referred to only after the case is independently established within it. As it has been already said, the method adopted by the author is valid and it is here challenged because of different, we would say, 'Weltanschauung.'" (Byrski, 14 Sep. 1984).

Laughter and Distress

Suddenness: H‚sa ('raw' humor) and  Vismaya (Surprise) distinguished

Bisociation and Incongruity

H‚sa and H‚sya as distinguished in Rasa theory

The Role of H‚sya (Humor) in Shrng‚ra  (Sanskrit Love Poetry)

Humor and the semblance of Rasa: the semblance of humor

Wit and Linguistic Ambiguity

Abhinavagupta's Conception of Humor: Conclusion



This is a summary of the bisociative theory of humor that I presented as an essay (Referat) at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Poona (India) in June 1984. It does so through a rapid critique of the manner in which Bergson, Freud and Koestler have handled the bisociative patterns.